Electronic Communities: Assessing Equality of Access

Electronic Communities: Assessing Equality of Access

Eric Riedel (University of Minnesota, USA), Marc J. Wagoner (University of Minnesota, USA), Libby Dresel (University of Minnesota, USA), John L. Sullivan (University of Minnesota, USA) and Eugene Borgida (University of Minnesota, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-878289-86-5.ch006
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The impacts of new technologies often belie the hopes of proponents and the fears of detractors. For example, Claude Fischer (1992) in his thorough analysis of the diffusion and social effects of the telephone, suggests that the overall effect of this new technology in the early twentieth century was not a dramatic break from the existing social order. “In more general terms, Americans apparently used home telephones to widen and deepen existing social patterns rather than to alter them.” (263) Moreover, he found initial access was determined by existing economic resources and social location (e.g. status). Our study examines a new communications technology which (at the very least) promises to be for the twenty-first century what the telephone was for the twentieth. The research question examined below follows a central concern of proponents and detractors of the Internet: whether this new technology will exacerbate or alleviate a growing inequality in resources (Phillips, 1990) among Americans, creating a new class of information “haves” and “have-nots” (Schiller, 1994). This question is answered in the context of a rural community consciously seeking to develop broad-based Internet resources available to all members. Existing socioeconomic inequalities are replicated with regards to computer ownership and use. With regards to knowledge and support for the network however, “social capital” constitutes an alternative path to socioeconomic resources. The community electronic network replicates not only economic stratification in the community but the social structure as well. These findings, as this article discusses, have broad implications for future studies of the Internet and other emerging communication technologies. Such findings suggest that emerging virtual social structures are grounded in existing economic and social structures.

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